I’ve a few more Death Ray articles left to put up here, really a bare handful. Here’s one of the last, a review of Charlie Higson’s really rather good zombie book, The Enemy.
Ex-Fastshow member leaves behind the antics of young James Bond, sets out to frighten children with thrilling zombie horror, mostly succeeds.
Like a lot of modern zombies, those in The Enemy are not dead, but diseased, like those in 28 Days Later and such. But where the adult protagonists of such fiction have to deal with the collapse of their world, the loss of their loved ones and the end of conveniently sited coffee shops, the kids in the enemy have to cope with their parents trying to eat them. It’s a hugely effective way of scaring the doo-doo right out of young-ish backsides, we expect more than a few nightmares as the result of this one.
The book, the first of a new series for the Young James Bond scribe, begins in Waitrose, where a gang of kids are struggling to survive some time after a mysterious plague killed most of the adults and turned the remainder into monsters. Led by the weary but capable teen Arran and his deputy Maxie, the gang decide to team up with the local Morrison’s kids to trek to Buckingham Palace after a messenger arrives from there, promising them an earthly paradise. Naturally, the journey is hard, and the new lad hasn’t exactly been telling the truth.
There’s enough action and scares in The Enemy to keep even the most jaded teen horror fan enthralled, while Higson writes with practised ease, moving his cast from one peril to the next, from massed adult attacks to an assault by diseased chimpanzees, finally to the rising of a zombie army under the command of a football fan whose mind is less rotted than most. If Death Ray were a more conservative publication, we’d no doubt be outraged by the book’s violence, but we were weaned on this stuff, and here it serves a purpose: despite some mildly wanton behaviour on the part of the children (smashing things up, rampant graffiti) it actually portrays youngsters in a very positive light. These are kids who band together to survive, who protect one another, sacrifice themselves for each other and are trying to build a new world from the ashes of the old, uncertain if they’re going to live another day, or if they’ll remain uninfected once they too become adult even if they dos. It’s a mirror image of Lord of the Flies, a blood smeared one, but it holds a kinder reflection of children; Higson’s kids are responsible and brave (he pointedly has one character talk about the rougher kids effectively wiping themselves out by acting like savages).
It’s perfect for teens, reminding us of the Tower King, a similar tale told in the 1980’s relaunch of Eagle, but it is way too scary for smaller children, the idea of powerlessness in the face of adult strength (though more than one overcomes this) or that of your parents turning on you is the kind that doles out long-lasting shivers with abandon – these are close to home horrors.
And it is, under its talk of Waitrose and Morrison’s kids banding together, a trifle middle-class, a little bit 70s Survivors, perhaps. Groups of nasty, bad children would remain, though his point that those who co-operated would perhaps fare better is a valid one, ne’er do wells would survive through raiding the better organised brainboxes we’d say (room for this in sequels, not doubt).
Higson does a good job, in the main, of rooting the story in the real world (he walked the route the children take, and London is meticulously described) but here and there its fantasy gets a bit out of hand and undermines the effect – a troglodytic, uninfected adult succumbing, vampire like, to the sun, and the idea that everyone over the age of fourteen becomes ill is rather specific when physical development differs from individual to individual This is a book for bright kids, and bright kids will spot that. Minor flaws, though. A gripping, and, peculiarly, uplifting, read.